August 14, 2020

A Nightmare Abroad: Survivors Speak

posted on: Thursday April 19, 2018

Gabrielle Vega shared her survival story in an interview
with Megyn Kelly. Photo courtesy of NBC6.

Studying abroad was by far one of my favorite experiences of my college career. I challenged myself through immersion in a totally different culture, made incredible friends, and travelled to dozens of cities across Europe and North Africa. Although going abroad should be nothing less than a fulfilling, life-changing experience, I was reminded last week of the serious dangers associated with traveling abroad that students need to be aware of.

On the evening of Wednesday, April 11, my friend sent me a link to an interview on NBC Today that featured three young women who had all studied abroad in Spain. They all took trips with the popular tour company, Discover Excursions, used by hundreds of study abroad students, those who are primarily studying in Spain. I also studied in Spain and went on multiple trips with Discover Excursions, so I was shocked when I opened the link.

In the interview with Megyn Kelly, the three women described how a tour guide and the owner of Discover Excursions, Manuel Blanco Vela, known to many students as Manu, assaulted or attempted to assault them. As I watched the interview I was disgusted and shocked. Gabrielle Vega, one of the survivors in the interview, claims she was raped in 2013 on a trip to Morocco with Discover Excursions during her semester abroad. She was 19 years old.

Vega had posted on Facebook about her experience with Vela and the subsequent trauma she developed as a result of her assault; Vega’s goal was to seek out other survivors who suffered at the hands of Vela so that he could be held accountable for his misconduct.

After the interview, other survivors began reaching out to Vega to share their stories. As of April 14, more than 50 women who have been assaulted, harassed, or harmed by Vela have notified Vega, according to her Facebook profile.

While I was abroad, my friends and I took multiple trips with Discover Excursions and the idea of being in danger of a serial predator never occurred to any of us. When traveling with a tour group or agency, one expects to be able to trust the guides and all other employees charged with leading people through a foreign country.

When I travelled with Discover Excursions, I never thought twice about accepting a drink from one of the guides—who were all men not much older than the students—or about spending time with any of them outside the regular tour schedule.

Vela was a guide on each trip I went on with Discover Excursions and spent time with us both on the tours and around the city we lived in. To think that myself, one of my friends, or a Providence College classmate studying abroad could have been assaulted by him is beyond sickening.

Vela exploited his position as a tour director by attacking and violating young women during what should have been one of the most incredible experiences of their lives. Several of the survivors reported the assaults to Discover Excursions regarding Vela’s behavior, but no action was taken in response to these complaints. Therefore, Vela continued to act as a tour director and was consistently supplied with victims.

As I write this article, Vela has not been arrested or charged with any crimes; however, Discover Excursions is now closed and all of their scheduled trips have been cancelled. Because no formal legal actions are being taken against Vela by Spanish authorities, there is nothing stopping him from forming another travel company or obtaining another job at a similar company.

As long as Vela is allowed to roam free and work in close proximity to women, he is a danger to the public, especially study abroad students. If you are planning on studying abroad in Europe, exercise caution when participating in tour groups not affiliated with your academic program and avoid any tour or travel agency that employs Vela.

If you are a former study abroad student who has been affected by the misconduct of this man or someone else, you can contact the Personal Counseling Center, the V.A.S.E (Victim Advocacy, Support, and Education) Coordinator, the Title IX Coordinator, Public Safety, or email desurvivorsspeakup@gmail.com if you wish to share your story.

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